Scientists visit 8,400 North Carolina students

‘Science ambassadors’ deploy across the state for annual DNA Day celebration, inspiring students to break stereotypes, ask questions and dream big.

In celebration of the seventh annual NC DNA Day, thousands of North Carolina high school students are receiving a visit from a real-world scientist. The effort is part of a national push to demystify science and encourage more young people to envision a career in the sciences.

“Our main purpose is to get students thinking about what it means to be a scientist,” said Patrick Brandt, Ph.D., director of Science, Training, and Diversity for graduate education at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, who organized the event this year. “We want to show students how science is relevant to their lives, and we’d like to inspire more students to think about the possibility of becoming a scientist.”

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Students at Northwood High School in Pittsboro, N.C. recently received a lesson on genomics from science ambassador Becky Bigler. Ambassadors deliver one of four classroom modules, which are designed to reinforce the concepts covered within the state’s science curriculum.

This year’s event deployed 134 scientists, known as DNA Day “science ambassadors,” to approximately 330 classrooms in 94 high schools across the state. Since its inception in 2007, the NC DNA Day program has reached more than 57,000 students in 358 schools.

Each ambassador delivers one of four classroom modules, which are designed to reinforce the concepts covered within the state’s science curriculum. The module ends with an open discussion, allowing students to ask questions about what it’s like to be a scientist.

Ambassadors this year include graduate students, postdocs and professional scientists from public and private universities, community colleges, government research groups and industry.

National DNA Day is officially April 25, but in North Carolina the program lasts for several weeks. This year’s program culminates in a 5K Run and Science Festival on Saturday, May 17 at UNC’s Chapel Hill campus. The 5K Run, featuring creatively-costumed runners and a separate Kids’ Fun Run, starts at 9:00 a.m. The Science Festival, which is free and open to the public, offers family-friendly hands-on science activities from 10:00 a.m. – 12:00 p.m. in the Student Union.

Sparking an interest in science

Becky Bigler, a 4th-year doctoral student studying genetics and molecular biology at UNC-Chapel Hill, has volunteered as a science ambassador four years running. “I love doing this, because it’s a great opportunity to get the next generation excited about science,” Bigler said recently after wrapping up her second class of the day at Northwood High School in Pittsboro, N.C. “Not everybody needs to be a scientist, but people need to be aware of the value of science so they can decide for themselves whether scientific research is a good use of our tax dollars.”

Becky Bigler
Becky Bigler, a 4th-year doctoral student studying genetics and molecular biology at UNC-Chapel Hill, has volunteered as a science ambassador four years running. “I always try to leave students with the idea that science is really about exploring our world and solving problems—it’s much bigger than memorizing facts or just doing experiments,” she said.
This year, Bigler taught the DNA Day module on genomics—a broad area spanning DNA basics, how genes are inherited and how genetic factors influence health. “I always try to leave students with the idea that science is really about exploring our world and solving problems—it’s much bigger than memorizing facts or just doing experiments,” she said.   

Maria, a Northwood High School 11th-grader, said she enjoyed Bigler’s presentation. “I used to not like science, but studying biology has made me realize that science can be really interesting. It was neat to hear some of the statistics in the presentation, especially the ones about genetic variations. It makes me want to learn more about science,” said Maria. She hopes to go into a medical field someday.

For teachers who cannot arrange to have a science ambassador visit their classroom in person, the NC DNA Day program provides free video-taped modules and educational materials teachers can use year-round. These materials are available at the NC DNA Day website.

‘Someone we can relate to’

NC DNA Day organizer Patrick Brandt said that the opportunity to meet an actual researcher can make a huge difference in students’ perceptions of science. “It’s really valuable for students to see that anybody can be a scientist. Because the science ambassadors include numerous female researchers and scientists of all ethnicities, the program helps to dispel outmoded stereotypes of scientists as ‘old white guys,’” said Brandt.

That message appears to be getting through. “I liked hearing about science from someone closer to our age—someone we can relate to,” said Jessica, a Northwood High School 11th-grader, after Bigler’s presentation. “I really enjoyed having a guest speaker, and it helped some of the concepts sink in.”

The program has been enthusiastically received by students, who enjoy pelting ambassadors with questions ranging from the mundane—What kinds of pets does a scientist have? Do you play any sports?—to questions about college and career paths: How did you decide where to go to college? What were your favorite classes? What exactly do you study, and why?

Inspiring career choices

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Maria (left), a Northwood High School 11th-grader, said she hopes to go into a medical field someday. “I used to not like science, but studying biology has made me realize that science can be really interesting,” she said.
Careers in the sciences span a huge range of fields, from medicine to engineering to art and design. “I always try to show the students how you can bring different interests together in your career,” said Bigler. “For example, you can combine an interest in science with practically any other field, like photography, or writing. It doesn’t have to be limited to the traditional idea of a researcher working in a lab.”

Although the ambassadors do not explicitly set out to convince students to pursue careers in the sciences, the opportunity to meet a researcher sometimes results in serendipitous connections. A few years ago, one of the students Bigler had taught as a DNA Day ambassador followed up with her afterwards to express his interest in getting more involved in research. She connected him with an internship program that allowed him to shadow a researcher in a UNC laboratory during his senior year of high school.

The student found himself hooked on science, and has since matriculated to UNC-Chapel Hill. Perhaps, someday, he’ll find himself participating in the DNA Day program again—but this time, as an ambassador.

North Carolina DNA Day is sponsored by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, North Carolina Biotechnology Center, and UNC School of Medicine.